Charles Cobb was a student activist in the 1960s, protesting against racially segregated lunch counters, marching for voting rights and working with the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. After more than four decades, Cobb — now a journalist — decided to revisit the places where he and other activists took a stand and changed American society. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, Cobb recounts his journey in a book titled, On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail.
On the Road to Freedom is structured as a travel guide. Charles Cobb begins the journey in Washington D.C., proceeds down the Atlantic coast, continues through the Deep South, and finally turns north again into Tennessee. Along the way, he visits more than 400 sites where pioneers of the movement marched and spoke, sat at lunch counters and gathered in churches, where many were arrested or even lost their lives.
Cobb says the events that took place at some of these sites made history.
"St. Augustine, Florida: the struggle there in 1963 and 1964 contributed mightily to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, breaking down the barriers to access to restaurants and the like in the United States," he says. "The 1965 Selma movement contributed mightily to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which opened the door to voting rights to black people."
Cobb says revisiting other sites was an emotional experience for him personally.
"I think it is reflected in the book's writing, a place like Philadelphia, Mississippi, where friends of mine in 1964 were killed by the Ku Klux Klan," he says. "I remember when I was in the South, in one community in which I worked in fact, I actually had a white person who had been hostile to me, who in fact had arrested me, apologize to me when I showed up, working on this book."
On his road trip, Cobb had a chance to discover stories about the lesser-known leaders of the movement. Many of them, he says, were women who defied the gender expectation of their day.
"I'm thinking of women like Georgia Gilmore, for instance, of Montgomery, Alabama, who was fired from her job for participating in the bus boycott there, who then organized women into a club," he says. "This club baked cookies and cakes, which they sold on the street to raise money for the boycott. They were earning about $100 a week from their sales, which was a lot of money for a southern town in the middle of the 1950s."
He tells of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Her murder by a state policeman during a nighttime protest triggered the Selma-to-Montgomery freedom march. And of Barbara Jones, who led a student walkout in Farmville, Virginia. That, Cobb says, "was an important contributing factor to the 1954 [Brown v. Board] Supreme Court decision ending public school racial segregation."
Such stories, Cobb says, can help younger generations understand that the Civil Rights Movement didn't begin overnight. And that it was not just a movement of protest in public places, but a grassroots effort in a unique historical moment.
"I think the same forces that were driving anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa were driving the Civil Rights Movement: ideas of democracy, ideas of freedom, coming out of the World War II and World War I," he says. "It was a historical moment that was breeding change, not only in the United States but around the world."
Though it brought about many changes, Cobb says, the Civil Rights Movement did not solve all the problems related to race in the United States.
"Clearly, one issue that remains unsolved by the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s is public education," he says. "You can go to most public schools in inner cities and see there are huge problems that have not been solved. Secondly, economics, the link between citizenship and the ability to earn an adequate income remains unsolved. Even though you can get a meal in any restaurant, the question of whether or not you have enough money to get that meal remains an unsolved problem."
Cobb says he'd like On the Road to Freedom to revive his generation's memories of what happened when people who were usually spoken for found their own voices. He hopes it will encourage younger generations to travel the paths that made history and learn from their journey.